“Lady Lay” tears this Berlin Wall down

As the Berlin Wall collapses around her, a desensitized civil servant discovers her heart and soul through the songs of Bob Dylan in “Lady Lay,” a thoughtful and touching comedy by German playwright Lydia Stryk.

7 Stages’ alternately warm and fanciful production, a U.S. premiere, marks the first directorial effort from Heidi S. Howard since assuming leadership of the company last year and it bodes exceedingly well for the longtime troupe as it embarks on the next phase of its career.

In a variation on thinking globally but acting locally, Stryk essentially uses the sweeping historical events of 1989 as a symbolic backdrop to the intimate personal story of Marianne, a by-the-book bureaucrat in a West Berlin employment office where, as she puts it in her running dialogue with the audience, “The reality is there’s no work.”

A veritable assembly line of unemployed workers take a number and tell her sundry sob stories about their hardships. On occasions, Marianne will hand them a tissue, as though mechanically programmed to do so; at other times, she can barely hide her bored yawns.

By that description alone, the role would seem a good fit for actress Stacy Melich, who routinely plays a lot of intensely dispirited and hard-bitten characters (“The Mother with the Hat,” “Broadsword”). What distinguishes “Lady Lay” as such a departure for Melich — and her performance as something of a revelation — is how beautifully she conveys Marianne’s developing sense of self and humanity, how deeply she makes us care.

It’s a rare delight, watching the actress relax into her role, for a change. And it’s undeniably moving by the end of the play, when Marianne takes a flight bound for America and hopefully asks, “Am I free yet? Is this freedom?”

As cleverly conceived by Stryk and ingeniously implemented by Howard and scenic designer Nadia Morgan, “Lady Lay” unfolds on a bare, drab-gray stage. Various furniture and props suddenly materialize without warning.

For scenes at the office, Marianne’s desk drops down from behind a back panel of the set and piles of paperwork fall into place from above the stage. At home, her bed slides in and out from a side space situated underneath where some of the audience is seated.

That Howard has mounted the production in 7 Stages’ smaller studio theater certainly lends to the intimacy both of Marianne’s confessional story and of Melich’s ongoing rapport with the audience. Even so, you can’t help wondering how the show might have worked on the main stage, at least from a design standpoint. When the Berlin Wall inevitably crumbles in the play, it’s basically reduced to a few pebbles hitting the ground.

As an added kick, Del Hamilton, who co-founded 7 Stages (with Faye Allen) and was its artistic director for more than 30 years, portrays Dylan, who appears as a shadowy, echoing figment of Marianne’s (or Stryk’s) imagination, imparting platitudes about “trusting yourself” and “finding your own words.”

Along with music director Jed Drummond, Allen, Tara Ochs and Olubajo Sonubi winningly perform a literal chorus of other characters and the three of them also serve as backup singers to Drummond, who plays a fine guitar and leads the cast in a number of pleasing musical interludes (“Desolation Row,” “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” “I Shall be Released,” etc.).

In more ways than one, “Lady Lay” truly rocks.

Theater Review

“Lady Lay”

Grade: B+

Through May 19. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays (excluding May 3); 5 p.m. Sundays; 2 p.m. Saturday (May 11). $20.37. 7 Stages, 1105 Euclid Ave., Atlanta. 404-523-7647.

Bottom line: A nifty concept, engagingly rendered.